This is one of the scariest books I have read in a long time. Good science fiction, good posthuman fiction, challenges the idea of what it means to be human. Octavia E. Butler goes beyond that, way beyond, challenging not just what human means but how open-minded I am to such challenges. This book blew my mind.
As a huge fan of science fiction, and as a relatively erudite person, I like to think that I have an open mind. I like to think that I'm receptive to the idea of drastically alternate human futures. I believe the Singularity, if we survive long enough, is inevitable—and I welcome it. After reading Lilith's Brood, especially the first book, Dawn, I'm no longer so sure of my open-mindedness. As I read the book, I found Butler's ideas running up against walls of prejudice and bias I didn't even know I have.
The Oankali rescue humanity from the brink of total annihilation by global warfare. They offer humanity the chance to survive, but at the price of human independence: humans and Oankali would hybridize, their mating supervised and controlled by the third-gendered Oankali ooloi, who can manipulate DNA of individual cells. Some humans don't like this idea, so they resist. This surprises the Oankali, who are continually frustrated by "the human contradiction" of "intelligence and hierarchical society." It takes a human, at first, Lilith, to help the Oankali succeed in their plan to save humanity. Later, two of Lilith's human-Oankali construct children, Akin and Jodahs, make valuable contributions toward ensuring the future of both humans and the human-Oankali species being born on Earth. Of course, the question remains: is it enough? Can we ever triumph over "the human contradiction" and survive, whether independently or in a merger with the Oankali?
Butler doesn't seek answers to these questions. She addresses their existence, which may or may not have been obvious to the reader, and then explores the idea of merging with an alien species. This isn't a trashy SF novel with tentacle sex and mind-blowing orgasms. It's a deeply seductive, profound, and repulsive SF novel with tentacle sex and mind-blowing orgasms. The Oankali are terrifying because they are truly alien, and it's impossible for humans to negotiate with them on human terms. Probably the most potent example occurs at the end of Dawn, when Lilith tells her ooloi mate, Nikanj, that she is not ready to have children with it. Yet ooloi are perceptive to the cellular level, and Nikanj knows that even if Lilith claims that she does not want children, her body wants children. So he makes her pregnant. This abrogation of Lilith's free will and control over her body recurs throughout the series, and is explicitly codified in Imago by Jodahs. It is undergoing its first metamorphosis, changing from child to subadult ooloi—an unexpected change, and one that may mean exile to the orbiting ship. Nikanj again makes a promise, this time to Jodahs, to let Jodahs stay with it "for as long as you want to stay." Jodahs interprets:
It meant as long as I was not more miserable alone with the family than it believed I would be if I were cut off from the family and sent to the ship. Humans tended to misunderstand ooloi when ooloi said things like that. Humans thought the ooloi were promising that they would do nothing until the Humans said they had changed their minds—told the ooloi with their mouths, in words. But the ooloi perceived all that a living being said—all words, all gestures, and a vast array of other internal and external bodily responses. Ooloi absorbed everything and acted according to whatever consensus they discovered. Thus ooloi treated individuals as they treated groups of beings. They sought a consensus. If there was none, it meant the being was confused, ignorant, frightened, or in some way not yet able to see its own best interests. The ooloi gave information and perhaps calmness until they could perceive a consensus. Then they acted.
Through the ooloi model of decision-making and action, Butler challenges our individuality by removing our prerogative for self-deception. Suddenly, our wants and needs are determined biologically, regardless of what we say we want. Is there a difference? Should there be a difference? I don't know, but the idea of some third party disregarding my wishes, whether those wishes are right or wrong, certainly scares me.
This emphasis of the biological over the social is a major theme of Lilith's Brood and also the source of my only real disappointment with the series. I dislike how strongly Butler emphasizes the biological construction of gender and ignores pretty much anything except the "traditional" heterosexual masculine male and feminine female. Yes, the mating of humans and Oankali challenges our ideas of sex, but not really gender—aside from the act being performed, men are still masculine and females are still feminine. There are no gay men or lesbian women—I don't think the Oankali would have an equivalent relation, because they would not understand the idea of "sexual orientation." To them, sex is purely physical. Love, as humans define it, does not exist. Mating is based on attraction, maintained by permanent neurochemical attraction, and for the purpose of procreation. The gender roles of the Oankali are even more strictly partitioned than human genders have ever been, to the point of being indistinguishable from biological sex. I'm not certain how much of this omission is deliberate on Butler's part or to what purpose, but I think it's an avenue of exploration that shouldn't have been left fallow.
Aside from this disappointment, this book's brilliance compensates for its other faults. Adulthood Rites and Imago are somewhat less compelling than Dawn, partly because of the changes in perspective—although it's interesting how Butler begins the series with a human protagonist, then switches to a male human-Oankali construct, and concludes with an ooloi human-Oankali. These increasing degrees of Otherness are an effective narrative strategy, but sometimes the later two books failed to hold my interest. Sometimes the Resister characters felt too thin—not that I disbelieved that humans could act so harshly and shortsightedly, but that everyone seemed to act that way. Butler explores the psyche of the very alien Oankali and human-Oankali constructs, but she seldom delves into the minds of regular humans, save for Lilith in Dawn.
Lilith's Brood made me look at my own psyche, however, and question how well I knew myself—that is, to what extent I was deceiving myself when it came to my tolerance for change. I still like to think I'm eager for the posthuman future, but Butler has helped show me that it could be far more frightening, on both a visceral and conceptual level, and far more seductive, than I previously thought. This series is a masterwork combination of thought experiment and character conflict, and it has accomplished what all books set out to do but few books can achieve: it has changed me. A thought-compelling exploration of possibilities, Butler creates verisimilitude even as she pulls us away from any sense of normal, removes any sense of safety, and refuses to reassure us that the questions we ask ourselves will have nice, comforting answers.
Read this book.